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Emily Graslie: The Young Mind Behind 'Brain Scoop'

02/19/2014 07:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

Emily Graslie was named Chief Curiosity Correspondent at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History in June 2013. In that role she hosts "The Brain Scoop," a weekly educational YouTube channel devoted to exploring the worlds of taxidermy, zoology, natural history museums and the culture of animal preservation. Graslie received a bachelor's degree in studio art in 2011 from the University of Montana where, as part of her degree program, she interned during her senior year at its Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum. She appeared in a "VlogBrothers" video in 2012, explaining specimens in the zoological museum's collection. The video's popularity led to her being offered the role of host on "Brain Scoop," which debuted in January 2013. She has become a champion of involving women in science and of broadening science education. She has written op-ed articles about these topics for the New York Times and Crain's Chicago Business. Her interview with GlassCeiling.com follows:

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You're ending an amazing, eventful year. Looking back at all that has happened, what is most surprising to you?

I'm truly surprised by how fast things have moved. Before I was a part of YouTube, I knew of it and that there are people called "vloggers" who create videos about their lives and upload them. I knew all that was different from the music videos and whatever else was on YouTube but I wasn't a part of it.

I really didn't understand the degree to which the educational community had anything to do with YouTube. But after becoming a part of that community, I looked around and realized that we had an amazing platform and a good start toward making free, high-quality educational content available to anyone with an Internet connection.

That's when I started to take my role more seriously. I realized that these people are not just reaching a couple hundred people each month; we're reaching millions of people.

You didn't just become well known overnight; you've become influential.

Yes. And I suppose that has been the biggest surprise to me. It still feels awkward just for me to say I'm influential.

Has that the realization made you approach what you do differently?

Oh absolutely. As I say, it makes me take my job more seriously. Actually, it makes me take my life more seriously! Not just my job. I really deliberate about the conversations I have with people and how I can influence young people. I'm starting to adjust to living my life where every moment is a public moment; where I imagine there is an audience everywhere. Leading by example has definitely influenced how I do things.

Have you passed the point where you feel free to toss off a funny line in one of your videocasts without worrying about how it will be taken?

Yes. Now I try to be careful about what I say. I think I'm humble. I think modesty goes a long way. But awareness is important, too. I've learned to be aware that what comes out of my mouth can be misconstrued or taken in an unintended way.

What's the best part of the celebrity you've achieved?

It's hearing from young people. Honestly that makes everything worth it. I feel like I've been given the best gift. Just today I went up to gift shop here at The Field Museum to get some postcards. The fellow working in the shop--I don't know him at all--said, "It starts with one person. And you're that one person who's influencing young women and making a difference." This total stranger knows what I do because my videos play in Stanley Field Hall [the museum's main gallery] and he says he's seen me on the news. He wants to let me know that he likes what I do. It's 8:30 in the morning and someone is telling me I'm the leader of some cultural revolution. It's astounding. And flabbergasting.

Last November you did a much-talked-about Brain Scoop episode titled "Where My Ladies At?" You pointed out there are "significantly and noticeably fewer women making science educational channels on YouTube" than men. Was that the first time you realized that you have influence?

I think it was. I took a chance with that video; I didn't know it was going to be received at all. I could not have predicted how it was. It was a case where I started to realize I did have a little influence and that if I had a choice number of words to say, I wasn't going to expend them frivolously. I decided that if I'm in this position, what I say is going to be deliberate, pointed and well thought out. That was really the first time I used the leverage of my platform to express myself.

That video moved you to the forefront of an important discussion about the lack of women in science careers. Is it a topic you want to champion?

Absolutely. It's something that was important before and something that is going to continue to be. While I don't want to go to the media every week to proclaim, "We need more women in science!" it's a fact we live with. It's an issue that impacts volunteers and interns and who we hire. It is something continuing that we need to be conscious of.

The other focus of that November video was you addressing the nastiness and sexism of some of the comments about your appearance you've received. Have the percentages of snarky and nice comments changed since then?

I think they have. The people who leave the snarky comments are fewer and a lot easier to identify. Before it was people leaving comments that they thought were being helpful. It was, "Hey, Emily, it might help for you to dress a little sexier." They weren't being intentionally derogatory but I've seen less of that "helpful but not helpful" kind of comment and more audience participation about comments that are derogatory.

The people who really value and take to heart the educational quality of what I do have sort of taken it upon themselves to police the site. Not police like censorship but saying, "Hey. Watch the 'My Ladies' video. Your comments aren't appreciated by anybody here."

Now that you're someone whom younger women look up to, what do you tell them about finding opportunities?

Identifying opportunities is the beginning of taking advantage of them. Opportunities may come our way and they're subtle; they don't have a lot of bells and whistles, or with an announcement. I encourage people to look for opportunities in places they may have overlooked.

People often ask me, "How can I do what you do and work in a big museum?" I tell them to look for a small natural history museum or a university collection. It doesn't matter how many specimens it has or how large or small it might be; get your foot in the door.

In fact your first volunteer work at the University of Montana museum was a departure from what you'd been doing, wasn't it? You were pursuing a fine arts degree, weren't you?

It was totally out of the blue. I didn't know you could work in a museum like that or who did or what they did, or what their educational backgrounds were. I had no idea what was in a museum collection beyond what you see. I had no clue.

That probably has helped you because there's an intelligent innocence to your discoveries at the Field Museum. Do you feel you're learning along with your audience?

I think it helps a lot; it makes the science accessible. Science is difficult. The science that the researchers and curators at The Field Museum pursue is years and decades of long hours and many publications. It's dense.

There's very little middle ground for people who express an interest in science. They don't want to be condescended to but at the same time a lecture from someone with two Ph.Ds. can be unapproachable. But interest in science in our society is increasing.

It seems you took to your role easily. Do you have a background in theater or performance?

It's funny you ask that because I do. I was in children's theater at a young age. I never got the main roles. I did after-school theater programs through high school. I acted in a children's theater when I was 14 to 16 and put on kids' plays at a park. But I never really took it too seriously. I played the secondary roles.

So "Brain Scoop" wasn't the result of any determination to return to performing?

No, not at all. But doing that children's theater gave me some useful tools. Spending 10 hours a week in a dark auditorium in high school and hearing a teacher/director yell "Diction!" or "Enunciation!" paid off. Speech or debate or any communications pursuit is invaluable I believe. It wasn't any desire for the limelight.

Being in the limelight can have its stresses, can't it?

Sure. I have a personal blog in addition to "Brain Scoop." It has a small but devout audience. I can speak to them sort of as an aside. It's stuff I don't talk about on "Brain Scoop." This job can get hard. It can be stressful. To be in a world where everything's been turned upside down in the last 12 months can be tough to grapple with sometimes.

I've had people--older women as well as young--who've said to me, "Thank you for being so candid about this because these are struggles that I've had in the field, too." Sometimes you're expected that everything is a walk in the park, and it's not; realizing that can be motivating.

There aren't many other women who have a job like yours, so might it be that your mentor is feedback from people you've touched or influenced?

Yes. It is, I suppose. I'm learning from experience and trying new things. But I'm not going to be the only woman doing this forever. I've identified a community, a very small community, of women who are science communicators and writers. We all share the same joys and laments and discouragements. We make email groups and Facebook groups and having that sense of community helps.

You've recently returned from Kenya. Could you have imagined that was possible for you?

No. It was amazing. Life changing. I forget how little of the world I've seen. I grew up in a small town [Rapid City] in South Dakota. I lived in a small town in Montana. Moving to Chicago was a real experience. I've finally eaten Indian food! That's the sort of thing people who live in cities take for granted

But, wow, I saw Africa. I never imagined I would. To feel so wonderstruck and so stupid at the same time, it was like I've lived under a rock.

I had a lot of interesting conversations there with a Kenyan biologist. She works at the Nairobi National Museum and has essentially the same job that I had in Montana, doing specimen preparation and such. Just to talk with her about being a woman in science was fascinating.

She asked me how old I am and if I'm married and have kids. She asked when I will have children and I said "I don't know. Maybe never." She was flabbergasted and said I have to have children. It was so different from women in this culture.

What's the career arc you see for yourself? What are the things you know you want to do?

I don't know. Everything has been such a whirlwind. Now that I feel like I'm getting my footing a little, I see giving our videos a longer-term scope as far as planning. And I want more interaction with the public. I spend a lot of time in my office with my head in email and I should do more outreach.

I'd like to put my money where my mouth is and see what difference I really can make. I think it's going to be interesting.

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